Episode 1a: Mushrooms, revisited

Hello, Weinersmithians! Our good friend, Dr. Paul Smaldino, called and asked to speak in defense of the psilocybin paper we discussed last episode. He’s a bona fide psychologist, and helps us to evaluate our critique.


Mystical Experiences Occassioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness (the article we are discussing)

Phineas Gage

Big Five Personality Traits

Hood’s Mysticism Scale

The Hypnosis Thing Zach Mentioned

12 thoughts on “Episode 1a: Mushrooms, revisited

  1. Emerson Guitar

    Again, too much awesome. On the point of major personality changes not usually occurring after an single event, I would question the number of studies that show that to be the case. I don’t think there would be many studies that exist to either confirm or refute that claim. Although I only have a minor in psych, I would tend to believe that after an event – to use the stated example – such as a car crash, personality changes might occur. However, the number of studies which measured personality metrics before and then at various intervals after an event could not be numerous. It is not as rare as finding twins, deceased at approximately the same age, one of which had schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and brain samples were allowed to be taken, but it is still unlikely. I would also state that the event would have to be sufficiently traumatic or grand for a change to take place. I do agree that in the event I eat a sandwich tomorrow my personality is unlikely to be altered.

  2. Thomas Levy

    I feel like a properly skeptical study would have been structured to have the participants or the administrators not be sure whether or not they had actually taken psilocybin. I would have had half of the group be given a hallucinogen which is not traditionally associated with “spiritual experiences”. Simply giving them a sugar pill would not suffice, you may as well tell them that they are the control group when they experience no altered state of mind.

    1. Andy Boyd

      I agree. You mentioned quite regularly that they did not use a sugar pill as a control. Do you have a suggestion as to how that could work without the effect of the drug as AM mentions above. They will know instantly what they have taken when no effects occur. Is this telling that you never mention this that you aren’t experienced drug takers that this point didn’t come up?

  3. Dakota

    Regarding Paul Erdős, I would be interested to see where the “second author” claim comes from. In mathematics the authors are traditionally listed alphabetically to avoid gauging intra-paper priority.

    It has even been suggested that the idea of any sort of gauge has it’s own, inherent, flaw which some refer to as “Goodhart’s Law.” See http://is.gd/BPXWfG This is especially apparent in mathematics as results are often quite esoteric at first, realizing application only years later. Personally I believe any metric is useful when taken as is. This is usually an arbitrary distinction of mostly unimportant factors, but it is a distinction nonetheless!

    I like the notion that to publish you must review. In many ways arxiv.org implements this and other features you mention, such as versioning. Even so, I have heard there is some reticence by many to take advantage of this feature, but I believe it will fade as collaboration results in more papers.

    Great job guys, I look forward to future installments.

  4. Morris Keesan

    How un-American of you, to give airtime to someone with a different opinion, and to reconsider your own opinion in the light of new information. Haven’t you been following the political process? Don’t you know that this is a sign of waffling and weakness?

    On a more serious note: Dr. Smaldino says that there has been no prior study showing persistent personality change after a discrete event, but isn’t that sort of the definition of PTSD? I know almost nothing about psychology, so maybe he’s not considering personality changes to be part of PTSD, or at least not changes that can be measured on any of the official scales.

    1. Paul Smaldino

      Yeah, I thought about PTSD after the conversation as well. The point the researchers make is that the change in personality was due to an *experimentally manipulated* discrete event, which was the novel thing and what I think I failed to clarify in the podcast. The category of “major life events” is associated with above-average rates of personality change – the unique thing here is that it’s something that can be done in a lab setting.

      1. Aiyos

        Does this not argue the point that it’s not the psilocybin itself that changes the subject’s mental status, but the “event” that taking psilocybin induces? Which would reinforce Zach’s point that it’s non-specific mystical experiences that alter the personality of the subject, not necessarily the psilocybin. In which case this could be reproduced with any other psychogenic/hallucinogen etc. or even more mundane methods of inducing life events, such as religion. It just seems more logical that if we already know that certain events can change personality then this should be written off as one of those events, rather than a unique effect of the psilocybin.

        1. Paul Smaldino

          I think Zach and I actually agree (along with the studies authors, I might add) that neither psilocybin nor mystical experiences have exclusive rights to personality changes.

          The study’s results suggest (1) that having a “mystical” experience can induce lasting personality changes in the realm of openness, and (2) that a controlled psilocybin session is one way (potentially among many) to induce such an experience. It’s the fact this study represents the first discrete *experimental manipulation* (i.e., something that can be done in a lab with the participant’s consent) that can produce such an effect that’s particularly noteworthy, particularly as one considers potential therapeutic benefits.

  5. M.Allen

    As a social scientist (political science-international relations), who is heavily invested in statistical analyses, I am digging these podcasts. I just finished 1 and 1a and will continue to look forward to these podcasts. As such, I hope the two of you (as well as future guests) continue the trend of discussing methodology, measurement, conclusions, hypotheses testing, and the contextual meanings of studies within the larger body of work.

    While I have enjoyed SMBC (and the theater) for quite a long time, the additional venue of a more serious discussion of science and scientific issues is a good complement to those other venues.

  6. Tyler

    I’m not really sure if you could have a control group in this kind of study, since people who just got a sugar pill would know for sure that they didn’t really get the drug. Then they would be disappointed in being the control group and would have that in mind when filling out the personality test later. So a control group probably wouldn’t help much.


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